Chicago Theater Review: THE PRICE (TimeLine Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 31, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

PLOYS IN THE ATTIC

It’s noble to sacrifice for loved ones who need you. But what if it was for nothing? Arthur Miller’s 1968 family play The Price puts its title to rich use. Ostensibly, it’s about the purchase value of the heirlooms, keepsakes, and antiques in the cluttered attic of a Manhattan brownstone soon to be torn down. (This astonishingly elaborate treasure trove assembled by set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge can be seen and still not believed!) How much will 89-year-old furniture appraiser Gregory Solomon (Mike Nussbaum) offer for the Franz brothers’ 30-year-old assemblage of “Spanish Jacobean” cabinetry and objets d’art too valuable to be disposable, like the possessions of the present? Today, argues the ancient dealer, stuff, like people, must be breakable and temporary, not solid and secure.

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But, as TimeLine Theatre’s magnificent revival (celebrating Miller’s centennial) makes palpable in minutes, Miller’s “price” is very volatile. Because, like the stakes in all his scripts, it’s really a moral measure. Two brothers, estranged since their dad’s death 16 years before, reunite, their potent past as non-negotiable as the broker’s asking price.

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A memory play in the present tense, this 140-minute domestic drama is archly characteristic of its provocative playwright. It expands a domestic tale of divisive priorities into a much bigger picture: In a world mad for money, is a family anything more than an economic unit, its love or loathing tied to success or failure? Then, the popular game show notwithstanding, the price is not right.

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A lot more must be settled on this top floor than the disposition of an abandoned inheritance. A ton of emotional baggage gets unpacked as Esther (Kymberly Mellen) and Victor Franz (Bret Tuomi through Oct. 18, Terry Hamilton to Nov. 22) return to Victor’s old lodgings in a decaying neighborhood. Tired of scrimping to make up for Victor’s civil-service salary as a cop, tippling to deny her diminished dreams, Esther wants delayed revenge for Victor’s bad luck and worse choices: Intent on getting payback for the “moral debt” that Walter owes his rich brother, this driven, angry wife wants retroactive compensation–a windfall in the estate sale. But for 49-year-old Victor, mired in mid-life crises, the Franz hoard triggers painful remembrance of scavenging garbage and doing without to care for his broken father, a purse-proud casualty of the Great Depression.

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Supposedly indifferent to their dad’s fall and failure, older brother Walter (Roderick Peeples) took a different path: Refusing to be ashamed of his prosperity, as scientifically minded as Victor, Walter transformed his talents into a peripatetic career as a noted doctor and medical researcher. Where policeman Victor seemed trapped in supposed sacrifice, now-divorced Walter drifted into unedifying fame. If either got what they wanted, it was not what they need. Astutely appraising more than the tchotchkes, a foxy Solomon literally picks up the pieces, shrewdly gauging the brothers’ contending claims for a treacherous legacy.

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The audience guesses too. We’re as torn as the brothers as we “appraise” the prices they paid to justify the choices they made: Miller questions both Victor’s self-serving ethic of financial sacrifice as the price of filial devotion and Walter’s easy desire to assuage his guilt by remaking Victor into the scientist he was meant to be. The paths not taken–this toxic stew of “what might have been”–threatens more harm than a dysfunctional present can fix.

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An artist who thrives on plays that defy improvement, Louis Contey raises Miller’s stakes as high as four superb actors can aim. He inspires Mellen to drive home Esther’s fury over broken promises she refused to resent, Tuomi to convey Victor’s embattled decency as more than a survival strategy, and Peeples to expose Walter’s twisted repudiation of a damaged childhood. Then there’s magnificent Mike Nussbaum, an acting legend as unbreakable and invaluable as the props that surround him. He gives every word the express weight that Miller doled out almost 50 years ago–a theatrical ton.

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A seemingly private, personal piece, The Price seems to depart from TimeLine Theatre’s usual fare of historically urgent dramas (and even from Miller’s more socially minded Death of a Salesman and The Crucible). But, like All My Sons and A View from the Bridge, it’s a conscience keeper: The Price indicts the American dream as a greed quest, dividing and conquering loved ones who badly need better bonds.

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photos by Lara Goetsch

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TimeLine Theatre
615 W. Wellington Ave.
ends on November 22, 2015
for tickets, call 773.281.8463
or visit www.timelinetheatre.com

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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